A small private school in a small Ontario town is taking on a big project to collect six million pebbles to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Inspired by Paper Clips – a documentary that chronicled a campaign initiated in 1998 by the staff and students of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn., to collect a paper clip for each of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims – the staff and students at the Goodwin Learning Centre in Trenton, Ont., have begun their own quest to better understand “what six million looks like.”
Linda Goodwin, the principal and founder of the school – with a student body of less than 50 – and Melissa Michael, a teacher, are heading the project that involves all the students from kindergarten to Grade 8.
Michael said that studying World War II and the Holocaust as a way to demonstrate the importance of good character has always been a part of the curriculum.
When trying to teach kindergarteners about such sensitive material, Michael said teachers speak to them about people who weren’t treated fairly and try to teach them how to be good to people.
As the students get older, they read Holocaust literature including Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and Night by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Holocaust survivors have also visited the school as guest speakers.
But after seeing Paper Clips, Michael said the staff wanted to take Holocaust education to another level.
“The question ‘what is six million?’ has often come up with the kids here. After watching the film, we were trying to think of a way to demonstrate that as well,” she said.
“We actually thought of the pebbles, and one of the reasons is that it is also a sign of respect to place a pebble on the tombstone of someone who has passed away. We have several students in the school who are Jewish and there are two girls whose grandmother just passed away and they had been talking about putting the stones on her grave, and that is where the idea came from.”
Having just started collecting pebbles in September, the staff and students at the Goodwin Learning Centre are still trying to figure out how to display the pebbles.
“We don’t have an idea of what the six million are going to look like yet either so at this point… so we’ve got them neatly in a bin.”
Michael said that initially they thought to build a memorial path as an extension of the school’s peace garden, but the pebbles each come with a story and have meaning to the students, so they are still contemplating the best way to exhibit them.
“A lot of kids are coming in with stories as well, so we’re [marking them and] keeping a journal just to remember everything. They’re really taking it to heart… It’s not just a project about collecting rocks. It takes on a much bigger meaning for them as well,” she said.
“At this point, we have 5,447 rocks. We are trying to get a rock from every single province and territory in Canada, and from as many different countries in the world. For example, I went overseas in the summer. I travelled to England, Italy and France, so I brought pebbles back with me from there,” she said, adding that students also bring back pebbles from countries they’ve travelled to.
Since the staff began sending out letters to spread word about their campaign and ask people to help them reach their goal, pebbles have been coming in from local members of Parliament, famous authors and Holocaust survivors.
“We got a pebble from [children’s author] Robert Munsch, so that was a real highlight. John Koning is another author who is a very good friend of our school, and he sent in a pebble and included some stories.”
Marion Blumenthal, a Holocaust survivor and the author of Four Perfect Pebbles, also informed the staff via e-mail that a pebble was on the way, Michael said.
“We sent a letter to Elie Wiesel as well. We haven’t heard back from him, but after we read Night, the children all sent him what they thought were their best responses from our novel study we had done and he sent us an autographed copy of his book, so we’re sure that as soon as he receives our letter, he’ll send a pebble as well.”
Michael said she is excited about the project and isn’t discouraged by the fact that 5,447 pebbles is a long way from six million.
“It’s going to take a while, but that’s OK and we’re going to stick with it. It is such an important part of the school and what we do anyway every year. I don’t foresee that it will lose steam.”